"No" Vote Right Outcome for Commerce Center Project

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Last night the Common Council voted, 5-4, to defeat a proposed twelve story high-rise by Matthews, LLC. You can read stories about the decision here, here, and here.

I think this was the right decision. Here’s why:

(1) Neighborhood Plans Empower People

Matthews’s project was radically out of sync with the East Bank Neighborhood Plan, a document created in 2008 setting out a vision for the East Bank Neighborhood. This document was created with input from developers (Matthews’s own firm was represented), local businesses, and individuals from the neighborhood. It required several days of collaborative discussion and more than $50,000 of city funds.

The City of South Bend has many planning documents like this one -- there’s one for the downtown area, one for the parks, several for the various neighborhoods -- and these documents serve as a sort of community-building charter, a direct mandate from members of the community, regarding how we all see our city developing. These documents are often cited when “public input” is needed to justify a decision or a project.

If the council had approved the project, despite the massive incongruities with the plan (the building was roughly three times higher than the limit laid out in the plan), this would call into question the legitimacy of other such plans. It would weaken the force of arguments that such plans justify decisions, and it would send a clear message to the residents of South Bend that public input isn’t taken seriously when making big decisions like this one.

(2) The Council Wasn’t Presented with Enough Evidence

Matthews’s project started as a proposal to win some regional cities grant money. The original project was very different than what ended up coming before the council last night. Originally, the building was supposed to be around 75 feet, but -- after he won the competitive grant -- Matthews went back and almost doubled (and then tripled) that number. Throughout the process, documents were repeatedly requested to substantiate claims (such as the claim that 12-stories was the minimum necessary to make the grocery store and pharmacy possible), and -- even after such documents were provided -- serious questions about the feasibility of the project existed. If, as Matthews claimed, the Common Council is and ought to act as the ultimate zoning authority in the City of South Bend (a claim that councilmembers have themselves questioned), they are making the right decision purely from a zoning perspective. The proposals and supporting documents -- in the opinion of several city officials and experts who were consulted -- just weren’t far enough along. It would have been irresponsible for the Council to green light a project with so little evidence of its likely success.

(3) The Developer Wasn’t Willing to Compromise

At the meeting last night, Dr. James Mueller -- the Mayor’s Chief of Staff -- read a letter from the mayor requesting that the council support his administration’s negotiation efforts. Specifically, the letter set out a compromise that the mayor’s team had reached with Matthews: the city would offer 95% tax abatements for 10 years (meaning Matthews’s would only pay 5% of the taxes on the property for a decade), in exchange for the reduction of the building by one story.

One story.

Matthews didn’t want to reach a compromise with the mayor, the common council, or anyone else, and that’s his prerogative. As a developer, and as he himself put it at a previous meeting, he’s in it primarily to make money. Fair enough. But if his primary interest is to make money on the project, then the Common Council’s job is to protect competing interests, such as those of the neighbors, other businesses (several of which opposed the development), and the community at large.

From the outset, Matthews was warned that pursuing this project as a PUD was unlikely to succeed, and was told that city offices would be opposing him on the grounds summarized above. He chose to take a risk, and to decrease his chances of success by refusing to find a compromise, so the council’s decision to defeat the proposal is entirely reasonable and appropriate.

(4) This Decision Sets the Right Precedent

Anyone who attended these meetings will tell you that they were long. Discussion of this project -- in committee and in front of the full council -- was exhaustive. And it needed to be. When the council is asked to consider projects of this magnitude, they have a responsibility to investigate every aspect of it. One of the worries with approving this project is that the council would again be flooded with PUD requests of a similar sort (i.e. those designed to get around existing zoning restrictions), and that time and resources that could be spent on other issues would have to be re-directed towards the consideration of such projects. In voting no on this project, the council sent a clear message that these sorts of projects must proceed through the proper channels.

(5) Defeat Allows the Process to Move Forward

The council could have continued conversation on this proposal last night, but given the in-principle issues with approving the project, it’s much better that they simply rejected it. This gives Matthews time to pursue other avenues (such as asking that the East Bank Neighborhood be amended with input from local businesses and residents), or to start thinking about alternate plans. There are several such viable plans. For instance, Matthews is poised to acquire the remaining properties on the site that he does not currently own. With these parcels, he could easily build a shorter building with the same amenities. But Matthews acknowledged that he wasn’t considering those options (and wouldn’t consider those options) unless the current proposal was defeated. By refusing to drag out the process, the council has effectively invited Matthews, the neighborhood, and other developers to start thinking of more creative ways to meet the needs of the East Bank Village, while maintaining its unique and distinctive identity.